Thursday, February 21, 2013
The imposing height of the mountains and the saguaro form the backdrop of Tucson in my mind, in the same way that the mostly flat corn and soybean fields surround the Indiana town where I go to school, and the steep gorges and tree-covered hills are the foundation for my memories of home, in upstate New York. Last week, as we drove south to Ambos Nogales, and then west towards Altar, Sonora, I saw the mesquite and palo verde dotted landscape through North-eastern eyes – the dry soil and steeply ridged mountains appeared inhospitable. From my view within the air-conditioned van, a multiple day walk through this landscape seemed like an incredible feat, and inherently dangerous even without the added effects of a highly militarized border.
Your group should cross the border, to see what it is like, a hondureño suggested, when he found out we were learning about the borderlands and immigration, Do you think you could do it?
My citizenship ensures that I don't have to. Though we shared a meal and stories with each other, the reality was that the next day we left Altar, Sonora for the United States, crossing through the designated border crossing in Nogales, Sonora, with all the proper authorizations and documents. We were back in Tucson before the sun set. That is not the journey available to the men and women we talked to – to the many men and women who pass through Altar on their way north. In the face of such disjointed opportunities, Good luck, seems only to reflect the glaring differences, and yet I heard myself voice the phrase as I grasped for ways to honor our brief connection.
I'm told that Altar has grown incredibly in the past ten years, as Border Patrol has cracked down on nearby Nogales, and other population centers. Altar is directly south of Sasabe, and from there, many face the deserts of southern Arizona, with a much less rosy-eyed view than Thoreau. As we walked around Altar with the Padre from CAMYN, I was struck by the commodification of the crossing experience. There were many stores anticipating the needs of migrants: camouflage backpacks and hoodies, lighters, blankets, necklaces with saints, sneakers and insoles. There were even handmade shoe covers, made out of jean material and a swath of carpet, to cover tracks in the desert.
The Padre told us that before Altar's sudden growth, there was only one pharmacy in Altar; now there are more than ten. The owner told us that energy boosters are the most popular (caffeine drinks, chocolate, energy powders), as are sanitary pads (a cheap alternative to the insoles: they prevent blisters and absorb sweat). She recently started selling water in black jugs – so that they wouldn't reflect the moonlight. Before the plastic was black, people improvised with black garbage bag. And yet that change from clear to black plastic means that someone is directly profiting from the needs of clandestine border crossings.
As a group of BSP students plan to go camping this weekend, two hours southwest of Tucson, I am reminded of how resource rich we are, as we plan for a night in the desert with a propane stove, sleeping bags and pads, tents, and gallons and gallons of water. I grew up surrounded by catalogs from companies whose sole income came from the commodification of wilderness experiences, with page after page of sleeping bags, hiking boots, backpacks, lightweight tents, headlamps, cooking stoves, Camelbaks. Like any technology, the products seemed to be continually pushing for the lightest, strongest, smallest version, each with an additional cost.
And yet the recreational industry catering to the middle-upper class doesn't seem to benefit off of the same overt inequalities as the border industry. This seems most apparent to me in the militarization of the border, and the subsequent millions of dollars that are funneled into weapon and military companies through the purchase of ATV's, horses, remote cameras (on ground and in drones), ground sensors, pepper ball guns, tasers, and on and on. During our visit to the Border Patrol station in Nogales, Arizona, a map of southern Arizona was pointed out to our group. Like the Humane Borders map at CAMYN, the physical terrain was overlaid with the amount of time to apprehend someone who crossed the border before they could easily avoid detection, ranging from seconds to minutes in cities to hours to days in the desert. The map reflected the initial intent of Operation Gatekeeper in the 1990's: to seal off cities, that the terrain of the desert and mountains would form a natural deterrent.
Henry David Thoreau, a fellow north-easterner wrote, “My Spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! In the desert, pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture and fertility.” (Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”)
I wonder if Thoreau ever made it out to the desert of southern Arizona.
And I wonder, as we go out this coming weekend and go on hikes, as we sit around a campfire and look at the stars, as we spend the near-freezing night in tents and sleeping bags, who else will be in the desert with us, staring at the same stars.